Europa Report tells the story of a band of astronauts who set out to discover life on Jupiter’s aquatic moon. Of course they get considerably more than they bargained for in their process. Has there ever been a science fiction movie where an intrepid group of scientists venture out into unknown only to find nothing? Director Sebastian Cordero effectively merges science fiction, horror, and the found footage subgenre into one of the year’s most thoughtful films.
Presented as a sort of post-mortem documentary of the operation, Europa Report cross-cuts between major events occurring over the span of the ill-fated, 22 month mission. The fearless crew embark on their journey with smiles and grand ambitions, but optimism fades as equipment begins to malfunction, endangering the crew. Dread begins to set in, and soon the crew’s growing fear of the unknown comes to a head in a final series of events set on Europa.
The film doesn’t feature a traditional three act structure, and it doesn’t contain the kind of overly dramatic story arcs and characters we find in typical Hollywood fare. Played by a cast composed of talented character actors and unknowns including Sharlto Copley, Christian Camargo, and Embeth Davidtz, the movie’s protagonists are portrayed as rational, thoughtful scientists. Bad things happen, but every catastrophe in this movie could conceivably happen to talented, qualified astronauts on a manned-mission to Europa under the right circumstances.
The characters mostly deal with their situation as true professionals would. There are no alliances or back stabbings here. The characters conceal no ulterior motives. Each character is a legitimate explorer. The tension generated from Europa Report comes not from contrived internal struggles, but from the protagonists following their compulsion to expand the boundaries of human knowledge, even at great risk to themselves.
Cross-cutting between surveillance video taken during different time periods provides some structure and gives the film some emotional coherence. Sequences of enthusiasm at the onset of the mission are ironically placed side-by-side with the despair the crew suffers as they close in on their objective. Tension as the crew attempts to deal with equipment malfunctions in the cold void of space emphasizes the uncertainty of scenes wherein the ship finally lands on Europa. The filmmakers’ playful tinkering with the narrative keeps the film dynamic and interesting.
Most of the time, the found footage trope comes across as a low budget gimmick. Here, the technique is used unobtrusively, and it adds to the story. Taking place in the near future, the manned space flight to Europa is funded privately. Manned NASA missions were filmed; it’s hard not to imagine a private enterprise lunging at the opportunity to outfit every square inch of the vessel with cameras, with live feeds being sent back to Earth to be broadcast via the internet.
One of the more realistic reproductions of the interior of a space shuttle, the sets here are cramped and claustrophobic. Telling the story via surveillance cameras tucked into the walls of the shuttle emphasize feelings of claustrophobia and isolation. Traditional filmmaking techniques would likely have made the film feel more open. The found footage technique as used here adds to the sense of dread and isolation experienced by the characters. Nothing but cold, dark silence exists outside the tiny confines of the shuttle.
But the ship eventually arrives on Europa. The crew is tasked with determining whether the moon contains any aquatic life. Finding microscopic, unicellular life forms alone would count as a massive success for the operation, but what would a science fiction film be without a malevolent alien force?
Fortunately, Europa Report veers away from the usual temptations filmmakers succumb to when playing in the science fiction genre. Here, super-intelligent predators do not stalk the crew ala Prometheus, and a stark raving lunatic doesn’t attempt to hinder the mission ala Danny Boyle’s otherwise brilliant Sunshine. The threat depicted in this movie is largely different from what we’ve seen before, being entirely plausible and yet unlike anything previously depicted in scifi horror. I’ll say no more so as not to spoil the film’s surprises.
However, the greatest surprise offered by Europa Report is this: intelligent, thoughtful films can still be released in the summer movie season. Unfortunately, this low budget entry will not be lighting up theaters around the country, but it will receive a theatrical release, and it’s currently streaming via every major online provider. Europa Report may be a small film, but its ideas are grander than anything that’s been dumped into theaters this season. Those suffering from Hollywood blockbuster fatigue would be better suited to stay home and stream this film instead of hitting up the local multiplex.